- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

When Jon McNaughton decided to paint an image of President Obama holding a burning U.S. Constitution, he figured he would face critical dismissal and online scorn. But literally suffer for his art? Nah - that’s what models are for.

“I had someone hold a piece of paper, which I actually lit to see how the flames would affect the lighting,” Mr. McNaughton said. “I didn’t realize how quick it would go up, like in two seconds. Holy moly, it almost burned the model.”

A 44-year-old artist from Provo, Utah, Mr. McNaughton has been hot himself lately, producing a series of controversial conservative-themed political paintings that have garnered national attention and prompted both partisan and aesthetic debate.

Stating on his radio show that Mr. McNaughton’s work “moves me more than any art that I’ve ever seen,” Fox News host Sean Hannity taped a television interview with the artist and recently purchased the painting of Mr. Obama and a flaming Constitution, “One Nation Under Socialism.”

More than 3.7 million viewers have clicked on an explanatory YouTube video for “The Forgotten Man,” one of Mr. McNaughton’s previous paintings, which depicts Mr. Obama standing in front of the White House under stormy skies, stepping on the Constitution as a large group of former presidents look on, some applauding (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton), some looking pained (Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln) while a lone man - meant to symbolize “every American” - slumps in despair on a park bench.

The painting led the online magazine Salon.com to dub Mr. McNaughton “the right’s Shepard Fairey” - a reference to the artist who created the red, white and blue “Hope” poster that became the signature image of Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“The Forgotten Man” also induced New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz to tell a television station that Mr. McNaughton’s work was “visually dead as a doornail” and “typical propaganda art, drop-dead obvious in its message.”

On websites, blogs and Mr. McNaughton’s Facebook page, the artist’s obstinately narrative, unabashedly didactic, often hortatory works - such as “One Nation Under God,” which depicts Jesus presenting the Constitution to a group of Founding Fathers and archetypal Americans - have inspired outraged detractors and passionate defenders.

“I think that you should add some horns to [Mr. Obama’s] head and a pointy tail wrapping up with a small flame off its tip as the fire source to burn the Constitution,” wrote one visitor to Mr. McNaughton’s Facebook page.

“About as subtle and nuanced as the conservative world view,” wrote another. “Who needs the complexity of the real world when you’ve got a painting of the president pointing at a flaming Constitution?”

“I’ve had hundreds of phone calls and letters,” Mr. McNaughton said. “People supporting my work, but also people angry at me. It comes with the subject matter, I suppose. I already knew the country is very divided - but it seems that every time I paint something that is more bold, people get more excited about it. There’s been a shift in the [art] market.”

Political purpose

Mr. McNaughton never planned on becoming a lighting rod.

A married father of eight children who attended Brigham Young University on an arts scholarship, he has spent most of his two-decade career producing relatively innocuous landscape and religious paintings.

When Sen. John McCain of Arizona became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, however, Mr. McNaughton felt unexpectedly discouraged: A political conservative who fears “America’s abandonment of constitutional principles,” he found Mr. McCain to be a squishily moderate ideological flip-flopper; moreover, he was deeply disappointed in the expansion of the federal government and deficit under President George W. Bush.

Out of Mr. McNaughton’s disenchantment came “One Nation Under God,” followed by “The Forgotten Man” and “Wake Up America.”

A visual metaphor for the national debt, the latter depicts a grinning, glowing Mr. Obama - think the monorail salesman from “The Simpsons” - showering a crowd of adoring, chained onlookers with cash as a group of tea-partyesque protesters stand to one side and the “Forgotten Man” model takes a saw to his chains.

“My main purpose with [political] paintings is to have people think about the ideas they represent,” Mr. McNaughton said. “I think that 100 years from now, when people look back on our time in history, these paintings will resurface. They’ll represent how the right felt about what was happening in the country. And they’re something I felt I had to do.”

Still, Mr. McNaughton is first and foremost a working artist. When he contemplated a shift to political art, he fretted that it wouldn’t find a market - and he’d put four to six months of research and effort into a painting with no financial payoff to show for it.

Lee Freeman, Mr. McNaughton’s now retired business partner, shared that concern, particularly during a deep and prolonged economic recession.

“I was worried - who was going to hang this in their house?” Mr. Freeman said. “I thought the painting of Obama with his foot on the Constitution would offend people by belittling the office of the presidency. But Jon is the kind of artist who isn’t afraid to do anything.”

Mr. McNaughton said he has since sold “tens of thousands” of political paintings, ranging from small, unframed $29 prints to full-size canvas reproductions that cost more than $3,000. He hopes to fetch a six-figure sum for his next original piece.

“I made a living for a long time doing landscape paintings,” Mr. McNaughton said. “In terms of the impact on my business, those were like a pebble in a pond. Religious paintings were like throwing a boulder in the pond. And when I started doing political paintings, it was like throwing a stick of dynamite in the pond.”

Courting controversy

Mr. McNaughton’s political paintings haven’t always been well-received: Last year, the BYU campus bookstore stopped selling “One Nation Under God” as a university representative told the Salt Lake Tribune that the painting had received “negative feedback” and that the store’s mission is to sell “religious” as opposed to political art.

The school also disinvited Mr. McNaughton from giving a talk on the painting at a campus conference, reportedly because the artist’s planned remarks would violate the school’s policy of political neutrality.

Frustrated, Mr. McNaughton pulled all of his artwork from the bookstore.

“I worked at the bookstore when I was a student,” he said. ” ‘One Nation Under God’ sold there for a year and a half, and the art manager there told me it was the best-selling piece they’d had in years. But BYU censored it, saying it was too political.”

It is not alone in writing off Mr. McNaughton’s work as little more than propaganda. Dismissing Mr. McNaughton’s work as “cheap and vulgar and of no artistic value,” Washington-based art collector and gallery owner Charles Krause said, “It looks like the kind of paint-by-numbers stuff we used to do as children.

“As a propagandist, has he created an image that is stirring the hearts and wallets of politically minded people?” asked Mr. Krause, a former foreign correspondent who covered the fall of the Soviet Union and an avid student of political and protest art the world over. “Yeah, he has,” he answered himself, “and that’s fine. But that’s not fine art.

“To have Obama burning the Constitution, that is a heavy propaganda ploy - labeling and accusing someone of being something that they claim they are not,” said DePaul University professor Bruce Newman, a political art and marketing expert. “In a political campaign, I don’t think any candidate would allow their organization to put out any material that comes close to this. But it’s being done in a very clever way by the artist.”

Mr. McNaughton has mixed feelings when it comes to criticism. One one hand, he dislikes having his paintings dismissed as partisan hackery, citing the considered distinction, in his work, between conservatives and Republicans. To wit: The conflicted-looking Mr. Bush of “The Forgotten Man” stands with Mr. Clinton, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt, a group of what Mr. McNaughton calls “big-government” presidents, regardless of party label.

“I voted for Bush, but by the end of his presidency, I was sick to my stomach,” Mr. McNaughton said. “He bailed out AIG. He did things that were unconstitutional. I get all these angry people asking, ‘Why didn’t you paint when Bush was president?’ Well, I’m sorry. If [Mitt] Romney is elected, he won’t be safe.”

Moreover, Mr. McNaughton is proud of his artistic chops. His unfashionably allegorical style, he said, has nothing to do with a lack of skill or aesthetic appreciation. Rather, it’s related to the reason he released detailed videos and online guides that explain the symbolism and historical references in each of his political paintings - something of an anomaly in the contemporary art world.

“It’s not my goal to be in a museum or get the acceptance of the elite art community,” Mr. McNaughton said. “I want the average person to understand my art. Realistic art and a simple style have the best chance of accomplishing that - if I was painting in a modern or even impressionist style, so many fewer people would get it.”

At the same time, he reckons that even bad press - perhaps especially bad press - can be good press. Case in point? In February, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow posted an image of “One Nation Under Socialism” on her blog, inviting readers to make comic captions.

“That got picked up by a television station, and their report went all over the country,” Mr. McNaughton said. “It was a huge surge of sales for me. The people on the left that go to the greatest lengths to mock my paintings have actually done me a service. And it’s kind of flattering.” Mr. McNaughton laughed.

“I guess I should send an official thank-you note to [MSNBC’s Rachel] Maddow,” he said. “I think she might be displeased if she got that.”

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